How can I boost my immune system?

Originally Published: April 1, 2005 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: October 3, 2012
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Dear Alice,

I was wondering what I personally can do (habits, diets, activities) to strengthen my immune system? Thank you!

— GAEF

Dear GAEF,

This is a great question — with a slightly complex answer. Researchers and public health professionals have yet to find direct and conclusive scientific evidence linking certain lifestyle habits to "boosts" in the immune system. However, researchers have a pretty good idea about how immune cells lose their protective effects (more on that later). Here's what you should know: Consensus is that practicing healthy lifestyle habits, such as eating a varied and balanced diet, managing stress, and exercising regularly, are your best bet for keeping your immune system in tip top shape and functioning optimally!

There are a few reasons for the lack of scientific evidence regarding boosting immune function. First, your immune system is very complex. Researchers are still trying to understand this complicated and intricate system. Understanding which individual components of the immune system affect it as a whole is difficult, to say the least. Secondly, scientists aren't sure which parts of the immune system to boost. It's difficult to know which cells to boost and to what degree.

Now, more on how to NOT let immune function wane. Below are a few things you can do to help keep your immune system going strong and to prevent illness:

  • Reducing and managing stress, such as effective time management — long periods of stress can weaken the immune response. Ever notice how you get sick right around the time of finals?
  • Getting at least eight hours of sleep every day — deep sleep stimulates and energizes the immune system. For more information, tools, and resources to help you get your slumber on, visit Columbia University's A!sleep site
  • Maintaining a healthy weight — obesity can lead to a weakened immune system.
  • Exercising at least 30 minutes most days of the week — physical activity stimulates the immune system and helps with weight maintenance or reduction.
  • Maintaining a healthy diet and getting the recommended daily values of nutrients. Experts recommend getting as many vitamins and minerals as possible through food, rather than through supplements, because the body absorbs nutrients from food more effectively. Columbia University's healthy eating guide provides useful nutrition tips.
  • Washing your hands thoroughly and often with soap and warm water, particularly before eating and after using the bathroom. This reduces the number of viruses and bacteria that can enter your body.
  • Cooking meat thoroughly to kill dangerous bacteria and other microorganisms.
  • Consuming alcohol moderately — while one drink does not appear to affect immune response, having three or more drinks in a short period starts to impair white blood cells' functioning.
  • Not smoking — smoking leads to lung and other cancers, and also weakens the immune system.
  • Getting the vaccines recommended by your health care provider.

Each of these behaviors can help you achieve a balanced and healthy lifestyle. While unchangeable factors such as genes, age, and family histories can also influence immunity, people who incorporate healthier patterns into their daily living increase the likelihood for better health!

Alice